Paquita Hughes, an assistant director on this music video shoot, spent eight years in the Navy as an air traffic controller before attending film school and making her way to Los Angeles. Credit: Grant Slater/KPCC
In an industry where who you know matters, competition for jobs in Hollywood can be cutthroat. That's been the case for many military vets trying to make it in entertainment. But things may be changing.Veterans who've already gained a toehold in the biz are helping newcomers break in. The rest of the industry may be following suit.
In downtown Los Angeles, on the set for a racy hip-hop video, Paquita Hughes has her work cut out for her. The shoot is running behind schedule and it's Hughes' job as assistant director to rush the lingerie-clad models out of wardrobe and to the set downstairs.
Hughes is used to high-wire acts like this. She directed Navy pilots as an air traffic controller for more than eight years, but ever since she was a young girl in Mississippi obsessing over "Star Wars," she's wanted to be a filmmaker.
"I always had a camera in my hand,everybody knew me for having a camera in my hand," said Hughes. "But I just never imagined actually going for that goal. It felt really far away, like 'C'mon if I'm going to make it in Hollywood than I have to be from Hollywood. I have to have a rich family.'"
But since moving to Los Angeles a year and a half ago to attend film school, Hughes has easily found employment, thanks to other veterans.
Her boss, the video's director, Jeff Reyes, is also a vet and fought in Iraq in 2005. Now he operates a Reseda-based production company called EchosWorld. The former Army infantryman makes it a practice to hire veterans.
Over by the snack table is a former Navy cook overseeing craft service, and the line producer looking at his watch? That's an Iraq War veteran in charge of the filming budget.
"It's a world full of rejection, and if I have a chance to help a veteran that's trying to make it in this crazy world why not?" said Reyes. "There's no bigger brotherhood in the world than to be in the military, and I think I owe that to veterans."
Hiring a veteran can bring in more than $2,000 in tax credits for a company, but there are other perks. Veterans have a reputation as model employees: polite, punctual and motivated.
"I work on a lot of sets and these guys are definitely efficient. They're very goal-oriented and get stuff done without being told," said Jesse Lomax, the film's editor.
He recalled working with veterans on a video shoot last year.
"We were out in the desert and it was really hot, and we were waiting for talent who didn't show up for three hours," said Lomax. "I think I must have complained and they were like, 'C'mon, this is nothing!' They've spent much more time in larger, hotter deserts than where we were just outside Los Angeles."
Throughout Hollywood, hiring veterans is starting to happen on a larger scale. Entertainment companies such as Comcast and Disney have launched programs to recruit veterans.
The companies have also joined a group of movie studios and television channels using their media clout to ease veterans return to civilian life through employment, among other things. The project is called Got Your Six (military slang for "I've got your back"), and is fronted by the likes of Alec Baldwin.
Roy Ashton, who represents television writers and directors, said many in Hollywood are grateful to veterans for their service.
"We have freedom in speech and the ability to pursue projects that a lot of other people in other countries don't have. I think we have our freedoms because of the military," Ashton said.
Ashton, who heads the television division at the Gersh Agency, said he would like to see more talented veterans working in Hollywood, especially on military-themed projects. Despite that desire, his own agency has very few veteran clients.
For now, Paquita Hughes plans to keep turning to other veterans for jobs. She said because employers with military experience know what she's capable of, she's given more responsibility.
"Coming out of school with just one year of filmmaking, most likely you get a job as a production assistant," Hughes said. "And here I've landed an assistant director position. I'm so thankful Jeff has offered me that trust."
Hughes has a gig already lined up with another production company founded by a veteran. At this rate, she could be directing her own feature film way sooner than she thought.
This is part II in a series on military veterans in Hollywood. Click here to listen to part I.